Bricks and Mortar: Building the “Radically Soft” LMS

clouds-top-view-white-viewIn the harried weeks after school closed, schools worked to find ways to move instruction online quickly using the best information and resources they had available.  These shifts weren’t easy, and they aren’t without significant costs.  Hastily built online environments tend to be hard and utilitarian rather than soft and kind, and despite our words and best intentions about putting Maslow before Bloom and centering relationships, there are large parts of current online learning spaces that are dehumanizing.  We might very well blame the LMS we use, which are problematic in so many different ways, but we also need to look at our own pedagogies and practices as exacerbating rather than mitigating the problems inherent in our LMS.  Our actions within the LMS have quite a bit to say about whether the student experience is rooted in utilitarian hardness or radical softness, and it’s worth exploring the ways in which we can move our imperfect LMS experience toward radical softness.

When I talk with students about what they miss about school, their classes aren’t the first thing they mention.  They tend to think about all of the smaller, more fleeting parts of their school experiences that we don’t frequently attend to online. They’re talking about the mortar—the stuff in the middle—that holds the bricks together.  In An Urgency of Teachers, Jesse Stommel writes about how our singular focus on the bricks allows us to pay less attention to the mortar:

Educational campuses have libraries, coffee shops, cafeterias, quads, lawns, amphitheaters, stadiums, hallways, student lounges, trees, park benches, and fountains. Ample space for rallies, study-groups, conversation, debate, student clubs, and special events. Few institutions pay much attention to re-creating these spaces online. The work done outside and between classes (which is the glue that holds education together) is attended to nominally if at all.

As teachers, we tend to think of classrooms as a center of the universe rather than considering fully how we’re part of much larger constellation of centers across a student’s school day, centers which include the hallway, the library, the lunchroom, the sports practice, and so many others.  As we get better at building online environments, my hope is that we might pay closer attention to thinking about how we can build virtual spaces that move beyond the shell of LMS course, even if that means rethinking the LMS entirely.  Stommel, for his part, thinks about text messages, email, and social media.  One of the things I miss most is the vibrancy of our Writing Center, where students could come together, talk, write, and create together.  This is one of the reasons we’ve continued to meet weekly, and I’d also like to think it’s one of the reasons we’ve continued to have a pretty solid turnout.  Not working to create these in between, liminal spaces would have our students missing large chunks of the school experience.

In anything that we do, however, we need to consider how and why we’re asking students to interact and what potential costs there might be for them to do so.  In other words, the liminal spaces we do create should be sites of resistance; they should come from and be for the margins.  One of the current limitations of the big-name LMS is that it’s built with a certain idealized student in mind: quiet, compliant, algorithmic, but our students are anything but.  How might we sacrifice a little of the order of the LMS to encourage greater choice, authenticity, and even safe dissent?  As teachers, we know we can’t liberate our students—they need to liberate themselves—but part of creating liberatory conditions is helping to build what we Be Oakley calls “sanctuary spaces:”

“These spaces become places of resistance where radical softness is practiced, nurtured and multiplied on their own terms.  Sanctuary spaces populate outside of public space where ‘the political’ and ‘acts of resistance’ tend to cater to those who have the least to lose.”

Now, in a time where many districts have eliminated grades and standardized tests, we have additional freedom to build “radically soft” online spaces—spaces that imagine a different future together with our students—that will, hopefully, substantially transform the physical spaces we return into more democratic and liberatory.  Our soft online spaces can be sites where students have their identities affirmed, seek justice, and drive equity with their thinking, their words, and their collaboration.  This requires us to attend to the mortar as much as we’ve attended to the bricks, a shift that requires compassion, kindness, and trust.

Toward Fairness and Equity: Labor-Based Grading During and After COVID-19

eoq_jwiwaaar5uxIn “Our Pandemic Summer,” a recent article in The Atlantic, Ed Yong argues that framing the future in terms of “going back to normal” is a wasted opportunity to think about what a fairer and more equitable world might look like going forward.  There have been so many changes in a relatively short amount of time in education that imagining simply returning to the status quo—which was deeply inequitable and unfair—seems as untenable as ever.  One of the most substantive changes in many districts is changing the way grades are given—some districts have even removed grades entirely in favor of a credit-no-credit model—and it feels disingenuous at best and immensely damaging at worst to return to systems of ranking and sorting that have created incredible tension, anxiety, and disparity.  Grading is a space where we, collectively, need to reimagine a different future, and returning to “normal” undermines the commitments to equity that should be at the center of our work.

My district has essentially moved to a labor-based grading model for students, where learning and judgments about quality, which are always-already biased because of their roots in single standards, have been separated.  This separation, which radical for some, is a welcome relief to others, including many students.   Students earn credit when they complete 10 of 18 assignments, permitting students to make some choices and allowing for grace in the midst of a pandemic where tens of thousands of people in Michigan are sick.  If a labor-based grading system is what’s best in terms of equity and fairness for students now, it’s also best for students when they return to brick-and-mortar classrooms in the future.

In our English department this year, we reflected frequently this year about the inclusivity of our spaces, and one of the most crucial realizations that emerged was that most of the writing that was presented to students as “good” was rooted in dominant culture notions of what that means.  This couldn’t help but have an effect on who sees themselves as a writer and what counts as “good” writing during grading and evaluation.  I’ve previously talked about the ways grading is rooted in whiteness here.  One of my colleagues, who I discussed in a previous post, used this year to experiment with a new grading system as a result of some of our reflections and our one-on-one coaching sessions, and a few others are starting to make some important shifts, too.  That said, my own shift away from traditional grading took years of fits and starts, so patience with ourselves is in order.  Working against “common sense” and engrained notions of things like “rigor” take time; there’s tons to unlearn.  Even with all of those caveats, fragility remains, but attacks on grading aren’t necessarily personal, but questions about grading do force us to consider systems in which we’re complicit in upholding somehow.  Asao Inoue reminds us, “in all schools, grades are the means of discrimination, the methods of exclusion, not inclusion, no matter what we think they might do for our students.”  One of the biggest pieces of pushback that I get when I talk about grading is how it doesn’t “prepare students for the next level,” and it’s important to remember that just because other environments are oppressive doesn’t mean we have to replicate them.  Remember: we’re imagining a different future together, not attempting to reinscript what existed already and served only a privileged few.

Rightly, much of the current emphasis has been on building relationships—Maslow before Bloom—and student wellness and safety, both mentally and physically.  While our mouths may say these things, sometimes our actions indicate that these might not be the foundations of our classroom, even if we might like them to be or think that they are.  There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter that school is a student’s “job” and that grades are their “compensation,” and that, to me, seems like that end result overemphasizing outcomes and underemphasizing. relationships: we start to see students based on the products they produce rather than as human beings with a complex set of circumstances.  In these environments, students start to only judge themselves by the products they produce, and often devalue their really thoughtful, important work when it doesn’t reach certain graded outcomes, which, again, are rooted in center with no accounting for the margins.  Put differently, a system that rewards labor only when it meets a pre-defined outcome is going to be exclusive rather than inclusive.  It’s really important to teach students to identify, talk about, and, most of all, value their labor outside of any external validation.   The idealist in me hopes that this awakens students to start valuing their work more and that teachers help them do so.  Inoue takes an important point from Friere, which we sometimes forget: we can’t liberate our students—we’re not saviors—but we can set up structural conditions where they can liberate themselves by moving away from compliance and toward agency.

In addition to rethinking some of the ways students work and evaluate work, labor-based grading has also had other important byproducts, especially forcing teachers to think more carefully about what they assign and how they design assessments, especially when grades can’t be used as currency or, worse yet, a weapon to compel compliance.  This moment of reconsideration is important: what now?  Indeed, assignments and assessments need to be meaningful, authentic, and compassionate if we want students to complete them in the midst of a pandemic.  This means that students need to be able to make choices about what they learn, how they learn it, and the modalities in which they demonstrate their learning, and, without the daunting pressure of grades, they have expressed a certain freedom to take intellectual risks, share their own thinking rather a reheated version of a teacher’s lecture, and marry their funds of knowledge to their academic work in ways that didn’t seem possible—or weren’t deemed valuable—before.  In other words, teachers are getting a crash course in the amazing things that come from trusting their students.  Grading often interferes with the relationships we want to have with our students, and removing the barrier can help us start to rehumanize our classrooms.

We know that returning to “normal” is going to be impossible, but we might also think about what “normal” has cost us. We frequently hear talk about a “new normal” as negative, but we have the potential to reimagine parts of it as positive.

Coaching Notes: Using Cross-Level Instructional Rounds to Reimagine Math Literacy

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Over the last year, I’ve participated in two cross-level instructional rounds programs through my involvement with the Inquiry into Disciplinary Literacy and Learning (IDLL) network in my county.  At one of our meetings, secondary school teachers attend classes at Eastern Michigan University where professors who have been through the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program are working with their students to build their disciplinary literacy tools.  This year, I attended a mathematics methods course for elementary and middle school teachers focused on statistics.  While math classes tend to be static in my context—answering homework questions from the night before, lecture, and independent practice time—this class was intentionally different, and it helped me and, more importantly, the future teachers in the room, reimagine what math instruction might look like.

Inquiry-Based Approach

 “What statistic or calculation could you use here to determine effect size?  How would you figure out what to do?”

Seeing the questions that students were working through in class was eye-opening: students weren’t working through huge sets of problems with complex calculations, they were being asked to design problems that would help their future students build knowledge through a process.  If you want students to understand how distributions work, have them create multiple data sets and make box plots.  Have students talk about how changes in data leads to changes in distribution.  If you want to understand how effect size functions, look at studies on prescription drug trials to understand why understanding the concept and how it works is important, as is the connection to something beyond the math classroom.  Throughout this process, students were being asked to think about points in the process where their future students might struggle and why; they were being thoughtful about the need to differentiate and to be comfortable with everyone not being at the same place at the same time.  Having students design the problems and think through their processes is critical to develop more inquiry-based math instruction.  At some level, the answer, while important, is also incidental, especially if we believe the old saying that “math is about learning how to think.”  Answers are eventually important, but they won’t matter much unless a student can articulate to another person (or themselves) how they got there.

In the secondary classroom, I could see math classes switching to a short mini-lesson and then having several stations with inquiry problems where students work through different processes that help them continue building their ability to solve complex problems.  Students could present out, or they could record themselves using Flipgrid and share their videos with their classmates. Teachers could even have “Big Debates,” which some of our Social Studies teachers use, on the different processes to use, further reducing the emphasis on correctness and turning the spotlight on meaningful reflection and discussion.

Most math classes I took were highly individualistic, and many of those I observe are currently the same.  Doing this kind of work requires moving away from traditional grading and assessment structures, but it could be well worth it in terms of building students’ mathematical thinking skills.  There’s some group talk—and even group assessment—but it tends to be transactional.  Students need to learn how to have ranging, independent discussions in math that are both reflective and process-oriented.

Talk Moves

“I don’t care about the answer.  Talk to me about your process for getting there.”

The class started with students talking with each other in small groups about the homework from the last class.  Groups quickly assembled and with a command of both math’s academic vocabulary and reflective language, each student was able to carefully and cogently discuss their strategies for solving the inquiry-based problems that they were assigned, and, in my cases, each had a different answer or way of seeing that allowed them to do the work.  The ability to use academic vocabulary in an accessible way to explain a process to someone else is incredibly important in teaching math, and this was great practice for new teachers.  The reflective talk moves were impressive, too, as students were unpacking not only what they did and how they did it, but why it might matter in a classroom, as they worked to identify areas where students would struggle based on the Common Core-based learning progressions they were studying in class.  This became even more apparent in the “Mini Activities” students did throughout the class with breaks for questions and process demonstrations for both the professor and the students using the whiteboard and the document camera.

In talking with the professor, she tries to incorporate these language practices into her instruction so that her students are equipped to do this important work, but, perhaps more importantly, she builds a mathematics space where students can share vulnerability.  In a subject area that relies so much on being right, she’s made it acceptable to be wrong and to revise throughout the process of solving a problem.  The ability to use reflective talk moves rooted in academic language was representative of a powerful pedagogy that helped students sound themselves out through a process, articulating each step and why they did it.  The ability to unpack and discuss a process in a careful, considered way is a hugely important component of teaching mathematics, and being able to share vulnerability throughout can make interaction and instruction more inclusive.

Classes tend to move fast, but it seems worth it for teachers spending time throughout a course on building the academic vocabulary and reflective skills of students, even if it might mean less content.

Conclusion

Some of the professor’s intentional choices in their class are good pedagogy in any content area, like having multiple activities in a 75-minute period that release responsibility to students, but their ability to construct a safe environment where future math teachers can experiment with different processes, practices, and pedagogies was exciting to watch.  It’s important for future math teachers to know their content, but I’m hoping they were also taking notes on the teaching that day, too.

 

Coaching Notes: Reimagining Literacies Through Art-ELA Collaboration

The multiple literacies—visual literacy, maker literacy, reflective literacy—being taught and activated in art classrooms each day make them some of my favorite places to coach.  These disciplinary literacies are one of the reasons that art classes are vital to student success, as they teach ways of thinking and seeing that learners aren’t typically getting elsewhere in their school day.  This is something I may have known or considered, but it’s not something I had ever really seen activated.  Art classes can feel like an outpost, separate from other content areas (even physically in our school), but there would be important benefits for student literacy if there were strategic collaboration between art and the so-called “core” classes, particularly English, my core subject area, as we think about promoting the transfer of important literacy skills and moves across our school for students.  These sorts of cross-discipline learning opportunities have been on my mind, as our school begins an Instructional Rounds pilot for a more comprehensive roll out next year: how do we normalize and encourage this sort of learning?

What English Teachers Can Learn from Art Teachers

“I care more about the message and meaning of your art more than anything else.”
–A Colleague

My core philosophy centers on trusting students—the trusted become trustworthy, as Adrienne Maree Brown concludes—and art classes are some of the most trusting spaces in our schools, as students are given instruction with models, raw materials, and radical choice about their process, materials, and design.  In short, students are embedded in classrooms that center a kind of maker literacy.  Students are consistently making and remaking, they are experimenting without the common worry if what they’re doing is exactly “right.”  What’s made can be unmade; their work is always in beta.  This isn’t the ethos in many English classes, which can, at times, be “over-scaffolded” and prescriptive.  Marcelle Haddix reminds us that, in most cases, students’ competence is rarely ever presumed; they are assumed incompetent until proven otherwise.  That means rather than experimenting—making, unmaking, remaking—there is a top-down approach that stifles.  This might mean several iterations of drafts and a good amount of productive fits and starts, but it also might be the most productive learning experience our students can have, especially as we trust them as experts on themselves and their own learning.

In my Writing Center course, students write autoethnographies about their literacy and writing histories.  Here’s a representative example of a pattern I’ve been seeing, a pattern which has become increasingly dominant:

Upon closer inspection, however, there is another difference that I’ve become aware of; a difference that doesn’t show up in my old writings, but one that nevertheless has become apparent to me…my once-apparent love for reading, writing, and history seems to have dampened somewhat.

In the art classes I’ve observed, I’ve watched teachers honor student literacies through thoughtful, genuine encouragement and value student funds of knowledge even when they haven’t always shared the same knowledge.  Students will tell stories—often personal stories—through their work, and the level of support they receive when sharing vulnerability is a trait we should be actively emulating.  There’s no constricting prompts or tight guidelines, and, from the conversations I’ve heard, this feels fundamentally different from some other parts of their experience, which challenges us to make changes in our instruction that these feelings aren’t isolated to certain parts of the school day or school building.

It’s at the intersection of trust and respect where we see the power of maker literacy in our art classes and how it might be extended across curriculums and schools: students are learning how to think through their own changing interpretations about the world and their place in it rather than following along with narrow interpretations, remix and adapt the thoughts and techniques of others to say something meaningful for authentic audiences rather than producing solely for grades for a standardized test, and how to extend these skills across different media and platforms rather to being confined to a single output, like a five-paragraph essay.   What I’ve seen students do in art with some fairly basic tools and every day materials is nothing short of incredible; it’s critical thinking at the highest possible levels.  I’m taking the maker literacy ethos I’ve learned from my art colleagues with me in my coaching across the curriculum.

What Art Teachers Can Learn from English Teachers

If art teachers have the ethos, we might say that English teachers can provide the literacy frameworks that can help build or reinforce certain skills.  This isn’t to say that art teachers (or teachers in any other discipline) lack literacy pedagogy, especially in their disciplines, but ELA teachers often have the kinds of specialized training to put key literacy skills into action, make them tenable and tangible.  Put simply, we want students to be able to activate key literacy skills in a choice-based, trust-rich environment.  If I had my wish, I’d co-teach with an art teacher for a term because the results could be powerful.

My latest coaching experience in an art class came about. because my colleague is having students write artist’s statements for their work, which is an awesome way to build student metacognition about process, but they needed some support helping students understand and activate the skills necessary to do this level of work.  Part of my coaching centered on the sequencing of instruction, and another part of my coaching looked at practices that could help teach students what it means to analyze, interpret, and evaluate, as these are distinct moves.  While I knew commonalities existed, I had to respect that analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating might look a little different in the art room than they did in ELA room.  ELA teachers sometimes think these are “our” moves, and they are, but they have shared ownership and multiple meanings depending on discipline and context.

In the sequencing of instruction, we focused on getting students to move from seeing a piece of art, a sculpture in this case, to generating a list of what they notice, to sorting through their observations and starting to make meaning from them both in writing and conversation.  The process is very similar to Rosenwasser and Stephen’s “Notice and Focus” method in Writing Analytically.  Students had time to look at Karon Davis’ Muddy Water sculpture and collect their thoughts, then they were given two minutes to record every observation they had—whether it was about materials or composition or even some overarching theme considerations—on separate sticky notes, and then they were given time to sort through their observations, considering what stuck out to them.  From there, students engaged in some conversation with their tablemates about what they chose and why, maybe it was interesting or strange or revealing or problematic.  Had there been additional time, we had talked about doing a Harkness Discussion in a way that may have even made the discussion more robust, but the reality is that time isn’t always on our side.

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Following their conversation, students slotted their sticky noted into where they fit in the critique method that the teacher was using, and students were able to talk about why they put their sticky notes in certain spaces, which gave my colleague an opportunity to do some formative assessment on how students were thinking about describing, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating.  The discussion, which was open-ended, generated content for each move that students would have to make, and provided a generative model for them to do their own work.  This high-level discussion was, in part, made possible by the way the lesson was sequenced, which allowed students to generate ideas, test those ideas, and share them with a broader audience.  It also helped that the teacher wasn’t searching for “right” answers or having students play a guessing game about what they were thinking, the maker ethos was maintained throughout, but the process of noticing, discussing, and debriefing did help foster important conversations about what this process of metacognitive reflection looks like and what skills are needed to do the work.  This process provided students with the necessary prewriting to create strong artist statements.

Final Thoughts

When we combine the foundational literacy pedagogies of ELA teachers and the maker pedagogies of our art teachers, a powerful set of classroom practices start to emerge that are authentic and engaging, as we’re valuing what students know and their natural curiosity while helping them understand how to best use their knowledge and wonder to reflect on their work and express themselves to external audiences.

Coaching Notes: The Year of Ungrading

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A group of teachers thinking about assessment and evaluation differently at #NCTE19 in Baltimore, Maryland.

In her book Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown urges those interested in making substantive change to start small because, often, seismic change is too unwieldy and overwhelming to be successful.  Changes that work at the micro level are more likely to work at the macro level; in other words, it’s all about scaling up rather than scaling down.  The most exciting part of coaching this year was the number of teachers that asked for help disrupting traditional grades and grading in their classes.  This enthusiasm was also palpable in my team’s NCTE presentation about using face-to-face conferencing as a replacement for assessments that make the writer ancillary: many teachers are ready for something different.  In my excitement, I went into meetings with my colleagues ready to smash the traditional system (which I’ve talked about here), but my colleagues were in a different place, wondering how they might experiment with different systems to find out what works for them and for their students.  As a coach, I had to remember Brown’s emergent strategy: small is good.  Rethinking grading, which is a core tenet of education and often a deep-seated part of our pedagogies, takes courage and time. My goal as a coach wasn’t to put the cinderblock on the gas pedal with my colleague terrified in the front seat, but, instead, to help them navigate their own course toward change at their own speed, giving them needed encouragement and support along the way.  This reminded me of another of Brown’s emergent strategies–move at the speed of trust—which is key for making change sustainable.

My colleagues made some amazing changes this year in their classrooms to push back on these dominant systems to reduce the emotional toll grades have on student mental health and well-being and to work to be less unfair and more equitable in their evaluations.

Single-Point Rubrics

One of the small-yet-significant changes made by several of my colleagues, particularly in the disciplines, is using a single-point rubric.  Single-point rubrics, especially those that are ungraded, help students focus on the skill they’re working on without tying their process to grades.  These rubrics prioritize feedback over ranking and sorting, which more traditional rubrics do with overly-restrictive categories that tend to focus on what students can do wrong rather than what they can do right.  Even as evaluators, traditional analytic rubrics cause us to look for error rather than celebrate assets.  The rubrics that we use send messages to students about what we believe about an individual assessment and school writ large, and we can change the message we’ve been sending by changing the rubrics we use.  Several of my colleagues asked themselves if their evaluation of student work aligned with their values as educators, which provides opportunity for healthy self-reflection.

One of the biggest issues I’ve heard teachers discuss with single-point rubrics is time.  Moving away from easy analytic rubrics does reduce grading efficiency, but changes almost always require additional labor, particularly as teachers and students learn how to navigate a new system.  The narrative feedback required by single-point rubrics forces us to be thoughtful and intentional about what we’re telling students about their work and how we’re telling them, which is never easy.  Despite the additional time that my colleagues are spending giving feedback, they are finding that students’ relationship to assessment is changing in a positive way. Students seem to be taking more risks, asking more questions, and seeing assessment as less transactional.  The other benefit is that, with a “bless-press” or “plus-delta” model, all feedback is actually feedforward.

Together, our next steps will be to involve students more in better understanding the “why” behind these changes and involving them more in the continued development of assessment and assessment criteria that better aligns with their needs and their goals.  We should always need to remember that students are experts on themselves and their own learning, and, as a result, should be welcomed into conversations about assessment and assessment criteria. 

Student Surveys and Feedback

A few colleagues did take up the important work of involving students in assessment and evaluation design this year.  This started with asking students to do some reflection on self-assessment on what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn it, and the ways in which they wanted to show their learning, which, in itself, is an awesome step.  Often, we spend time differentiating instruction only to standardize the assessment, which can be frustrating for students who want a more relevant and authentic way to display their knowledge.  This requires flexibility on the teachers’ part, as they have to be willing to cede control over large parts of the learning and assessment process to students.  Some teachers have expressed reservations about managing students who are all doing different projects and who may be at different points in their project.  While the feeling is understandable given the way we collectively imagine the classroom to be, the truth is that students were likely always in different places anyway.  Not all students learn in the same way or develop skills at the same time, no matter what we say.  This willingness to involve students in important decisions about learning and assessment marked a small-but-important step away from giving students assessments that weren’t relevant to their learning and that they weren’t ready to take.

These conversations led to other conversations about how it didn’t feel “right” to grade student-centered learning in a traditional manner.  Coaches are tasked with helping folks reach their own conclusions about their practice, and I was happy that those that I worked with were able to see the incongruence between fledgling student-centered, liberation-oriented practices and the traditional practices we have in place. We can’t truly seek liberation for ourselves and our students until we change the oppressive practices that brought us to the current reality.  Many of my colleagues took an additional step of surveying their students regularly about their teaching practices, and while vulnerable, they have learned a great deal about how to be the best teacher they can be for each of their students.

Again, these changes are small, but fractal change is a key to success: asking students what they want and need and working to create structures that make it possible is a considerable move in a liberatory direction.

Portfolio-Based Grading

One of my amazing colleagues took a huge plunge into portfolio-based grading this year, and it was really great being able to help them navigate the nuanced complexities of a new system.

One of the first significant hurdles was describing a portfolio-based grading system to students and parents, especially in an AP course where students have, most often, benefitted from traditional systems that privilege being “best,” which relies on some transactional notion of ranking and sorting.  Under this system, students would be writing more, receiving fewer grades, and self-reporting the grades they did receive after conferencing with the teacher.  For our community, we gathered research about the benefits of pushing back on traditional grading structures, generally, and portfolio-based systems, specifically.  My colleague also stressed the humanizing element of portfolio-based grading: the opportunity to talk with each student about each piece of writing multiple times, allowing them to feel valued and supported as a person and writer throughout the process.  After some nervous moments during Open House, most—if not all—parents in attendance were supportive—or at least not actively unsupportive—of the new system.

As the system was implemented, however, the teacher started to feel the crunch of time.  While portfolio-based grading with student conferences are meant to push back against efficiency, there are practical limitations on time.  In talking with the teacher, we realized that she wasn’t keeping close track of time, often letting conferences extend to 20 minutes or more.  Talking to students is legitimately the best part of our job, but my colleague had already talked to them several times during the formative stages of their writing, so such extended summative conferences weren’t needed.  We also talked about focusing the conferences—“bless-press”—rather than going line-by-line through the paper, a practice that mirrors the generally ineffective on-paper feedback that marks up everything.  Moreover, the shifting of language away from evaluation to learning is hugely positive.  Future conferences were shorter and more focused, which helped the teacher get back important minutes in their day and helped students get the high-level narrative feedback they needed to improve.

Toward the end of the term, we developed an anonymous student survey about their experience.  Student responses were overwhelmingly positive, especially around feeling the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, but a few students had difficulty with not understanding their progress in relative terms: they wanted to know where they were in relation to their classmates, not just themselves.  These students, though few in number, reported actually having more anxiety without the competition.  School has been extremely successful in getting stakeholders to buy into its transactional metrics of success and to feel lost without them, so much so that the only way to feel safe again is to return to the overarching authority of grades. Continued work with students is necessary to help the reimagine the possibilities of school and their learning, as we can’t expect them to work through seismic shifts in their educational processes any better than we can.  It’s important to be patient and empathetic to students who are working with new systems and frameworks; as Brown reminds us, move at the speed of trust.